Madalyn Parker is a software engineer in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who suffers from depression, chronic anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. A couple weeks ago, she had a few nights of insomnia, couldn’t get any rest, and was having lots of suicidal thoughts.
With all this, she tells CNN, she wasn’t exactly productive at work—so she decided to take a couple days off, and notified her 40-person organization accordingly.
I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully, I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%.
The reply from her CEO, Ben Congleton, was so thoughtful that she posted it online. “I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote, since every time she does so, it reminds everybody of the importance of taking sick days for mental health.
“I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organizations,” he added. “You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.”
Rose’s Tweet sharing the correspondence has, since the time of writing, received almost 500 replies, over 16,000 retweets, and 45,000 likes.
And surprisingly, for a conversation on the Internet, much of the ensuing debate has been very thoughtful—like when startup founder Andrew Cohen asked why there needs to be both vacation and sick leave rather than just one policy, and a web developer explained that with a family, he needs vacations for shared experiences, and then he separately takes days off to look after himself mentally and physically.
About one in five American adults experiences some sort of mental illness every year. About 18 percent experience an anxiety disorder annually, and almost 7 percent go through a major depressive episode. Thomas R. Insel, the former head of the National Institute of Mental Health, estimates that the annual loss of earnings to serious mental illness is over $190 billion.
While pop culture is slowly starting to become more OK with talking about mental health—thanks in part to celebrities like Selena Gomez speaking out—it still hasn’t come very far into the workplace. Organizational psychologists find that disclosing a disability, mental health or not, can lead to lowered expectations from management and isolation from coworkers. In a recent survey of 2,000 people across Britain, respondents said that coming out publicly about having a mental health issue would be harder than coming out as gay, admitting a drinking problem, or going bankrupt.
Changing workplace taboos takes time. But this conversation blowing up across the Internet is most certainly a good sign.